La revolución perdida

When I was in Mexico City in 1999, I found a copy of the first volume of
Ernesto Cardenal's autobiography (Vida perdida, Seix Barral, 1999) at one of my favorite bookstores, the Librería Gandhi in Coyoacán. I've bought the subsequent volumes in this trilogy and am now finishing the third one, La revolución perdida (Editorial Trotta, 2004).

Cardenal's prose in these volumes is nothing short of brilliant. He's written an autobiography employing the research methods of a journalist, combing through newspaper articles from his own archives, as well as interviewing friends and other witnesses of the political and literary events his own life has encompassed. Each of the volumes is massive, pointing to his prolific nature as a writer.

But as I've been reading La revolución perdida over the last year, I've found myself having moments of deep distaste toward certain aspects of Cardenal's narrative. In particular, I'm noticing some of the hypocritical stances Cardenal takes in order to justify or explain some aspects of his political allegiances over the years.

Cardenal has been very vocal recently in condemning the current leaders of the Sandinista party in Nicaragua for corruption and for what he sees as their betrayal of that movement's original goals. The title of this volume (The Lost Revolution) implies a sense of grief and anger at a betrayal on the part of many of his fellow companions.

What I find problematic in Cardenal's third volume is his inability to go beyond a critique of the Sandinistas and to include himself in some of those betrayals he so vehemently denounces. One glaring example of this inability to include himself in his critique is the manner in which Cardenal idolizes Fidel Castro, a figure whose dictatorial actions over the last four decades cannot be ignored. Of course, Cardenal and his fellow Sandinistas owe much of their survival to the crucial material and intellectual aid Castro gave them before and after their ascent to power in 1979. But there are simply too many passages in La revolución perdida where Cardenal will discuss the crimes of the Somoza dictatorship without mentioning any of the crimes committed by the Cuban revolution.

My reading of Cardenal's autobiography is inevitably a personal one. Much of my writing on this blog has been dedicated to denouncing the incipient dictatorship in Venezuela under the regime of Hugo Chávez and his so-called Bolivarian revolution. Cardenal has been one of the more vocal supporters of the Venezuelan farce, visiting Caracas recently as an official guest of the government and writing painfully naive accounts (such as this one) of his experiences there.

Several of Cardenal's friends in Venezuela, including the poets Armando Rojas Guardia and Joaquín Marta Sosa, have pointed out the failure and hypocrisy of the Chavista revolution, but Cardenal has chosen to follow the Venezuelan government's party line on the crisis. Joaquín Marta Sosa wrote in his column for El Nacional about a coversation he had with Cardenal in Caracas. Cardenal refused to believe his own friend, choosing instead to adhere to the (false) epic narrative of Chavismo as a movement for social justice.

As a reader, I remain passionate about Cardenal's work. I don't suppose this will wane any time soon. I'm particularly drawn to certain mystical moments in his poetry, and how he manages to incorporate history into a cosmic world-view, as he does in texts such as "Hora 0."

And yet, reading Cardenal's mistaken analysis of what's happening in Venezuela, and noticing his refusal to acknowledge any personal responsibility in the decline of the Sandinista party in his memoir, I can't help but doubt him. I keep seeing his current enthusiasm for Chavismo as an old man's senile efforts to clear (or is it cloud?) his conscience.

In the April 30, 2004 edition of her column for the newspaper TalCual, the Venezuelan novelist Ana Teresa Torres also pointed out Cardenal's child-like enthusiasm for a revolution he gets to watch from a safe distance. Meanwhile, his own friends in Venezuela, all of whom once offered him their solidarity, are now forced to eat the daily shit of Chavismo. None of which gets displayed to gullible or mercenary (cf. Richard Gott) revolutionary tourists, from Managua to London to the US.

I find it hopeful to note that Cardenal's close friend and neighbor in Managua, the novelist Sergio Ramírez, has been able to see beyond the multi-million dollar international marketing campaign of Chavismo, noticing the similarities betwen that movement's populist tendencies and those of Peronismo in Argentina.

Undoubtedly, the concept of revolution is now being discredited in Venezuela. But this news hasn't reached certain people and I know some will continue to think of Chavismo as a legitimate political movement.

Whatever disaster awaits us in Latin America has already begun in Venezuela.

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